Peter Singer: 'We Need To Be More Cautious With Our Caution'

Peter Singer: 'We Need To Be More Cautious With Our Caution'
Peter Singer, philosopher and ethicist, at TED2013: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered. Friday, March 1, 2013, Long Beach, CA. Photo: James Duncan Davidson
Peter Singer, philosopher and ethicist, at TED2013: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered. Friday, March 1, 2013, Long Beach, CA. Photo: James Duncan Davidson
the european

Peter Singer is the world’s most prominent and controversial moral philosopher. He talked with Lars Mensel and Max Tholl about techno-skepticism, trash TV, and why our becoming less human might ultimately save humanity.

The European: Mr. Singer, do we have a healthy relationship with technology?

Singer: A question that broad really doesn’t have an answer.

The European: We have observed that certain countries, particularly Germany, are very skeptical concerning new technological developments -- be they as broad as consumer technology or much more specific, such as genetic engineering.

Singer: When I say that I am not prepared to give a single answer, I am dissenting from the idea that we should be more suspicious of technology. I am not particularly troubled by our relationship with technology -- I am troubled by our relationship with some particular technologies. But the general attitude that technology is a bad thing is a mistake.

The European: But why do you think so many people are afraid of technological progress?

Singer: I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist, so I don’t know. I suppose that people are afraid of the unknown and of change in general -- that may be a factor. But this is just speculation and my speculation isn’t going to be much better than yours or of most of your readers’.

The European: Could there be a link with human nature? If we look at inventions throughout history, starting with fire, there has always been skepticism…

Singer: How could you possibly say that? We have no historical records of the development of fire! How can you say that there was a skeptical attitude?

The European: We are assuming…

Singer: You can’t assume that! There is no basis for that.

The European: Let’s take something closer to our age: When steam engines and stocking frames were introduced, the Luddites were afraid they might drive them out of work. Therefore, they destroyed the machines.

Singer: Sure, but that shows that some people always lose -- in this case the ones carrying things by horses or producing by hand -- while others gain -- the people who needed to get goods to the market quickly and cheaply. Clearly, the population as a whole gained through the existence of steam engines and other developments of the Industrial Revolution. Again, that is a fairly big picture to try to estimate, but I think there’s truth in it.

The European: It’s the potential losers who drive the general criticism.

Singer: Some people will reject technology because they are losing out. Look at the technology we are using: The people working for phone companies used to get large fees from people making long-distance international calls. Clearly, they have lost money through developments like Skype. But just because those people make a fuss about it doesn’t establish it as a good or a bad thing.

"Let’s go ahead with it!"

The European: Maybe realizing the overall benefit is what creates the eventual tipping point: when skepticism turns into acceptance. The telephone was once feared; now we take it for granted.

Singer: I am not sure that this is a universal rule, though. I haven’t studied the history of this but I don’t think too many people thought negatively about the telephone.

The European: Let’s talk about something more controversial than communications technology. You have written quite a bit about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are still being tested and face huge opposition across the world -- despite the fact that, as you have pointed out, they promise many advantages.

Singer: And again, it’s not just one thing: There have been some negative consequences from attempting to genetically modify pigs in order to make them more compatible with humans for organ donation. Those pigs have suffered all sorts of health problems. And they haven’t produced compatible organs, haven’t solved the problem of organ shortage.

The European: And on the other hand?

Singer: There are some positive effects from genetically modifying crops. You can argue about this, but genetically modified corn in the United States is resistant to some pests and is generally considered a good thing. Golden rice is a modified crop that we haven’t yet allowed to be grown on a wide scale, but it looks like a promising way to overcome vitamin A deficiency in countries where rice is the staple food -- and could save the lives of many children who would otherwise die. It doesn’t look like there is any major downside to it. That is an example of a technology with an entrenched opposition on grounds that certainly had some basis when GMOs were introduced. I am not saying they have no basis anymore -- we still need to be careful -- but the testing has been quite extensive and the benefits are as significant as they can be. It is time to say: “Let’s be cautious but not have an ideological opposition to anything that is genetically modified; let’s go ahead with it.”

The European: Is it even morally justifiable to ban something because of the danger it might entail? You say that allowing it could potentially save millions of lives. Who gives us the moral authority to make such a judgement?

Singer: Somebody has to make that decision. I am not in favor of letting advocates of hugely modified organisms do what they like. The judgement should be made by national governments or -- even better -- by international bodies. If the EU bans something that is grown in Ukraine, the seeds are going to blow from Ukraine into Poland. That is why we need decisions that are made in a scientific and non-political way. But going back to what you said: The decisions ought to be made on a cost-benefit basis. If the benefit is potentially big, you have to have a clear indicator that the risks are also very great -- if you don’t have that, then you should allow it. There is an onus on the opponents to bring strong evidence that the risks are very great.

The European: These decisions often boil down to what is ethical and what isn’t. You said that the onus is on the opponents -- but those will often flat out deny that taking the risk is morally acceptable.

Singer: They are saying no matter how great the benefits, you can’t take any risk at all? That doesn’t seem right to me.

"Skepticism can be lethal"

The European: Think of nuclear power: That is exactly the argument opponents of this technology are making.

Singer: Nuclear power is an interesting example. There are clear benefits and they have actually become clearer as we have become more aware of the significance of climate change. When nuclear power was first started, people didn’t talk about climate change, and the benefits back then were just that it created a limitless source of power that was not dependent on fossil fuels. People did know that coal was dirty -- so the benefits were obvious. But clearly, there were also very great risks. Risks of meltdowns, risks of pollution of rivers or rendering large areas uninhabitable -- as indeed happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima. The risks were great and I would say that when nuclear power was started, the wrong decision was made.

The European: Why?

Singer; Perhaps the risks were too great for the benefits that people anticipated back then. But now that we know more about climate change, the balance of risks and benefits has swung a bit. And while the risks are still there, we do have more experience in managing those risks. They don’t go away, as you can see in Fukushima, but unless we are spending a lot on solar and other clear technologies, it is hard to see us cutting greenhouse gases enough.

The European: The main problem, then, is that it is hard to judge what the outcomes of any invention are going to be. They stretch into an unknown future and we can’t foresee the outcomes. How can we deal with this uncertainty?

Singer: We can only act on the best evidence we have at the time, and that entails limitations. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t even look at the evidence. And it’s certainly not a reason for saying we shouldn’t change anything. As we see with golden rice, inaction can lead to problems and you bear some responsibility for the large number of deaths that could have been prevented. The fact that we’re uncertain doesn’t mean we should remain inactive when we face such catastrophes.

The European: Skepticism is murder?

Singer: It can be. There are many examples aside from golden rice. If the climate is changing and there are more severe periodical droughts in countries where people are completely dependent on growing their own food, then using GM techniques to create more drought-resistant plants might save millions of lives. There are many cases where inaction is going to have very bad consequences.

The European: That also means that the right thing to do is always in flux -- as technology progresses.

Singer: …and as the evidence comes in as to how good or bad that technology is and what the consequences of it are.

The European: So what we need to do is work on our risk assessment.

Singer: We need to make sure we get the best evidence and the best people working on that evidence as it comes in to make assessments on that basis. We need to be more cautious with our caution.

The European: Technology also heightens our freedom of choice. It brings about changes in our ethics and morality: Things like prenatal screening, that simply weren’t available before, now force us to make certain decisions. The availability of technology influences our judgments of desirability. Do you agree?

Singer: Is it good to have this choice? Is it good to know that our offspring will have certain disabilities? Given that it is available, do couples want to use it? The evidence shows that they do. They could choose not to exercise this choice, not to know. But most of them want to know and -- given a prognosis of serious disability -- will end the pregnancy. That suggests that having this freedom of choice is not an unreasonable desire.

"Technology is an enhancement of our humanity"

The European: You don’t think we are losing some of our humanity because of those technological developments?

Singer: Not in general. In fact, we are solving our problems by using our intelligence and reason -- that is very much a human trait. People always talk about what distinguishes us from animals and that will be as good a candidate as any. I am not saying animals aren’t able to reason at all; they do. But obviously we do it at a very different level, partly because we have language we can use to communicate with others and solve problems jointly or learn how others did in the past. We are the only animal on this planet that can do that. You could say that technology is an enhancement of our most distinctively human capacities. It doesn’t mean we don’t ever lose anything, though.

The European: For example?

Singer: There will be some things that change. Things like the kind of entertainment people get fed on television and the number of hours people spend watching fairly mindless junk. Had the TV not been invented, they would be doing things that are more active, playing games with each other, reading more, telling stories, etc. Some of those traditions may have been lost. There are some costs -- but in general, we haven’t become any less human through the use of technology.

The European: Some would argue that by enabling us to make these very rational decisions, technology rids us of our ability to empathize.

Singer: I don’t think so. Our ability to empathize is in reasonably good shape – and technology extends it. Clearly, we can now have contact with people that we couldn’t reach before, and we can know what’s happening in other parts of the world in a way that wasn’t possible 100 years ago. People had no idea about droughts in a foreign country or a civil war in the Middle East. Now we have vivid images of war refugees and the suffering and we can empathize with them in a way that would be much harder without technology.

The European: It was said that the broadcasting of the Vietnam War created the opposition to it.

Singer: That is probably right. Remember the picture of the naked girl who had been napalmed, running down the street. That image had a culpable effect on attitudes to the war. And it was possible because of technology. Today, we get instant information and that can lead to action.

The European: Up to this point, technology was part of humanity but not necessarily the other way around. It seems to us that we are now at a tipping point where all the data we generate makes us increasingly become a part of technology. That drives fear and skepticism of technology.

Singer: I would see it as an extension of our humanity rather than a loss of it. If you look into the future, there are possibilities that might be seen as losing our humanity – such as the development of artificial intelligence that we might incorporate into our lives so that we don’t make decisions we do now because the A.I. is better at it. Is that a good or a bad thing?

The European: Your verdict?

Singer: If somebody were to say “that makes us less human” that wouldn’t answer the questions. If it does make better decisions and leads to a more peaceful world with less suffering, maybe that is better -- even if it is less human.

The European: Giving up some humanity for everyone’s benefit.

Singer: If you look at humanity in a reasonably objective way, there are bits of it that no one is going to like. We tend to be aggressive towards people who are different from us, as the long history of conflict shows. If artificial intelligence were to take over and put a damper on that, somebody might argue that we had become less human -- but it would be better.

The European: Maybe artificial intelligence can replace our fear of the unknown?

Singer: (laughs) Possibly!

This piece also appeared in The European.

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